(1) Jewish-Austrian background

I have written this book as an introduction to the new science of mind for the general reader who has no background in science. A further impetus for writing this book came in the fall of 2000… In the course of writing my Nobel essay, I saw more clearly than before how my interest in the nature of memory was rooted in my childhood experiences in Vienna. (p.xiv)

Kandel’s parents’ store (down the street from their apartment)

My parents shared the values of most other Viennese parents: they wanted their children to achieve something professionally—ideally, something intellectual. Their aspirations reflected typical Jewish values. Ever since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D…Jews have been a people of the book…It meant a great deal, even to a poor Jewish family in Vienna, that at least one son succeed in becoming a musician, a lawyer, a doctor, or, better still, a university professor. Vienna was one of the few cities in Europe where the cultural aspirations of the Jewish community coincided fully with the aspirations of most non-Jewish citizens…As their political and military power waned, they replaced their desire for territorial preeminence with a desire for cultural preeminence. (p.22)

Location of Kandel’s childhood home in Vienna

While I was in Vienna in 2003, I learned that the Viennese Kultusgemeinde, the Jewish social service agency was going bankrupt trying to protect synagogues against continuing vandalism…I met Michael Haupl, the mayor of the city of Vienna…He succeeded in persuading the governors of the Austrian states to help out financially…In these negotiations, I felt that the Kultusgemeinde needed our support in principle—on moral grounds. As far as I knew, I had no personal involvement with the agency…In July 2004 I received through the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. my father’s file from the Kultusgemeinde. In it were requests from my father for funds to pay first for my transportation and that of my brother to the United States and then to pay for the transportation of my parents. Simply stated: I owe my existence in the United States to the generosity of the Viennese Kultusgemeinde. (p.411)

Kultusgemeinde, Vienna

My fondest early memories are typically Viennese: one, a modest but sustained bourgeois contentment…and the other, a moment of erotic happiness that came naturally from our seductive housekeeper Mitzi….One of the criteria bourgeois families in Austria-Hungary used in selecting girls for housework was that they be suitable to relieve the family’s adolescent boys of their virginity, in part to entice them away from any possible attraction to homosexuality….My encounter with Mitzi, an attractive, sensual young woman of about twenty-five, began one afternoon as I was recovering from a cold at age eight. She sat down at the edge of my bed and touched my face. When I responded with pleasure, she opened her blouse, exposing her ample bosom, and asked me whether I would like to touch her. I barely grasped what she was talking about, but her attempt at seduction had its effect on me, and I suddenly felt different than I ever had before…Several weeks after our brief rendezvous in my bed, she took up with a gas repairman who came gby to fix our stove. A month or two later, she ran off with him to Czechslovakia. For many years thereafter, I thought that running off to Czechoslovakia was the equivalent of devoting ones’ life to the happy pursuit of sensuality. (p.23)

We can even recall past emotional states…To this day I remember some of the emotional context of my romantic encounter with our housekeeper Mitzi. (p.280)

In principle, a highly emotional state could bypass the normal restraints on long-term memory…This might account for so-called flashbulb memories, memories of emotionally charged events that are recalled in vivid detail—like my experience with Mitzi—as if a complete picture had been instantly and powerfully etched on the brain. (p.265)

What, in principle, has sustained my memory of Mitzi for a lifetime? (p.272)


I owe an enormous personal debt to my parents and my brother Lewis. My parents were able in mid-life to relocate to a foreign country - my father spoke not a word of English when he first arrived in New York - and to create a new life for themselves and their sons. My parents not only succeeded in establishing themselves in their small store in Brooklyn, but were sufficiently successful to support me through college and medical school. (Nobel prize essay)

My parents were so preoccupied with the store—the key to financial stability for them and their children—that they did not share in the cultural life which Lewis and I were beginning to enjoy. Despite their constant labors, however, they were always optimistic and supportive of us, and they never tried to dictate decisions about our work or play. My father was an obsessively honest person…But other than a general expectation of reasonable and correct behavior, I never felt any pressure from him to follow one academic track or another. (p.35)


Kandel (left) and Lewis

My older brother Lewis was exceptionally gifted. Throughout my childhood in Vienna I felt that he had an intellectual virtuosity I would never match. By the time I began reading and writing, he was starting to master Greek, to become proficient at piano, and to construct radio sets…He was an academic star throughout his school years …Despite his academic ambitions, he sensed that his major efforts should be to help support our family, since my father’s income was small and the Depression had not yet ended. So rather than enrolling in an academic curriculum, he…learned to be a printer…He was drafted into the US Army…and was wounded by shrapnel in the Battle of the Bulge…All service personnel were eligible for the GI Bill, which enabled them to go to the college of their choice tuition free..

In 1952 Lewis began work on his Ph.D. dissertation in linguistics and Middle High German at Brown University…One night while he was dining out, someone broke into his car and stole his belongings, including his research notes and the early drafts of his dissertation. He tried at first to reconstruct his work, but he never succeeded in overcoming this setback to his academic career…He decided to remain in France and became a connoisseur of fine wines and cheeses…His wife Elise converted [from Judaism to Christianity]. Elise also converted their five children, to my mother’s deep dismay and my astonishment…Elise moved from being a Baptist to being a Methodist…a Presbyterian and finally, as I once humorously predicted to her, a Roman Catholic…In 1969 Lewis developed cancer of the kidney…and died at age fifty-seven…My brother is an enormous influence on me to this day. My interest in…classical music, and my joy in learning new things were shaped to a great extent by him. (p.13,176-9)


Kandel’s ability to devote himself to memory experiments for 40 years was largely due to his wife, who not only valued his scientific work over domestic concerns, as a fellow scientist, but also subordinated her own scientific career to his. She did play a large part in deciding where Kandel lived and studied, and she did insist that he spend some time with his family, but ultimately these demands seem to have benefited his work. Kandel makes clear that she satisfied all his needs as a wife and created an comforting home in New York for him to settle down and focus on several decades of nonstop experimentation. As a fellow Holocaust survivor and Columbia medical professor, she was an ideal companion, and she even shared his taste in 1930s-era European art with which they gradually filled their house.

I was strongly supported in my decision [to study with Grundfest] by Denise Bystryn, an extremely attractive and intellectually stimulating Frenchwoman I had recently started to date.

A graduate student in sociology at Columbia, she was a fine cook, had excellent taste in clothing—some of which she made herself—and like to surround herself with vases, lamps, and art…Much as Anna influenced my thinking about psychoanalysis, Denise influenced my thinking about both empirical science and the quality of life…Denise’s father had trained as a rabbi in Poland…He left Poland when he was twenty-one years old and went to France, where he studied mathematics and engineering…became an agnostic and stopped going to synagogue…During the war, Denis was separated from her parents, hidden in a Catholic convent…Over the years, our memories of our individual experiences in a Europe dominated by Hitler…brought us closer together…

Denise sensed, perhaps more than I did, that my research ideas were original and bold, and she urged me to explore it. I was concerned however. Neither of us had any financial resources, and I thought it essential to have a private practice in order to support us. Denise simply gave the issue of money short shrift. It was of no importance, she insisted. Her father, who had died a year before I met her, had advised his daughter to marry a poor intellectual because such a man would value scholarship above all and would strive to pursue exciting academic goals. (p.50)

I learned something in marrying Denise. I had been reluctant and fearful of marriage, even to Denise, whom I loved much more than any other woman I had ever thought of marrying. But Denise was confident that our marriage would work, so I took a leap of faith and went ahead. I learned from that experience that there are many situation in which one cannot decide on the basis of cold facts alone—because facts are often insufficient. One ultimately has to trust one’s unconscious, one’s instincts, one’s creative urge. I did this again in choosing Aplysia. (p.149)

Shortly after our son, Paul, was born, in March 1961, Denis and I had a serious crisis, by far the most serious of our life together….One Sunday afternoon she showed up as I was working in the lab and simply exploded on me. Carrying Paul in her arms, she screamed, “You can’t go on like this! You are only thinking of yourself and your work! You are just ignoring the two of us!”…I sulked, pouted, and took days to recover…I decided to spend more time at home with her and Paul…It has required conscious effort on my part and help from Denise and from my psychoanalysis to be more realistic and to structure my time so as to make room for the responsibilities and pleasures of my life with [my children] and with their children.

Richard Strauss commented that he often wrote his best music after an argument with his wife. This has not generally proven to be the case for me. But the argument with Denise…did cause me to pause and think. As a consequence I learned from this argument that the obvious lesson that hard thinking, especially if it leads to even one useful idea, is much more valuable than simply running more experiments.

Spending more time at home with Denise and our son also gave me more time to think about how to approach the study of learning in Aplysia…(p.156)

[In deciding where to do postdoctoral study, Denise decides…] Denise, ever the Paris chauvinist, thought Paris the better choice. (p.148)

I moved in 1974 to Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons to replace my mentor Harry Grundfest, who was retiring...The decisive factor was that Denise was on the faculty. (p.247)